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18 September 2014
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Loot: Why the Vikings Came to Britain

The need for land

Image of Viking building remains in Shetland Isles, Scotland
Remains of Viking buildings in Shetland Isles, Scotland ©
Raids and loot were not the whole story. Land to farm was also a desirable commodity, especially for the families along the western seaboard of Norway, where fertile land was in short supply. Younger sons, political exiles, mercenary warriors and traders all had the option of becoming colonists in the lands now familiar from the tales of returning raiders.

Once based in the northern and western islands of Scotland, they could farm and trade and still turn their hand to raiding whenever convenient. And we know from the 12th-century Icelandic Sagas that this is exactly what they did.

Svein Asleifarson lived on the island of Gairsay in Orkney in the 12th century, and his lifestyle was recorded in one of these sagas.

'This was how Svein used to live. Winter he would spend at home on Gairsay, where he entertained some eighty men at his own expense. His drinking hall was so big, there was nothing in Orkney to compare with it. In the spring he had more than enough to occupy him, with a great deal of seed to sow which he saw to carefully himself.
'Then when that job was done, he would go off plundering in the Hebrides and in Ireland on what he called his "spring-trip", then back home just after mid-summer, where he stayed till the cornfields had been reaped and the grain was safely in. After that he would go off raiding again, and never came back till the first month of winter was ended. This he used to call his "autumn-trip".' Orkneyinga Saga, chapter 105

'Protection money had been extorted from the English.'

The pattern of Danish colonisation in England was more organised, as had been Danish raids after about 850. In that year a Viking army had spent the winter encamped on the Isle of Thanet at the mouth of the River Thames, and protection money had been extorted from the English.

Large forces of warriors, winter camps and payments in silver or food became the norm, even deep inland - a Viking camp of 873 has been excavated at Repton in Derbyshire. In 876 a Viking leader shared out the farmlands of Northumbria amongst his warriors. The Danish colonisation of England had begun.

About the author

Dr Anna Ritchie is an archaeologist and a Viking specialist. She has excavated numerous sites, notably Buckquoy, in Orkney. She is author of Viking Scotland, as well as many other books on Scottish archaeology.


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